After a wet winter, summer came early with November temperatures several degrees above normal.
Meteorologists confirmed a mild La Nina weather pattern for New Zealand’s summer. (To be honest, my understanding of La Nina and its opposite El Nino is pretty basic, and, sadly, pretty much remains so, even after making a concerted effort to make sense of the relevant expert explanations).
What caught my interest, as a west coast fisherman, were the predictions that the sea temperatures would be warmer and the North Island would experience more northerly/easterly winds.
As I write, in early December, I can confirm that the sea off the Taranaki coast has been near cobalt-blue for a good part of November and warm enough to swim in.
Blue water tuna hunting has been the highlight of my kayakfishing year for well over a decade, and so far the critical signs have looked very promising for a pre-Christmas start and hopefully a long and eventful season. I am therefore more than ready to head out at the first hint of chrome-plated pelagics showing up off the Taranaki coast.
However, while such activities have become quite routine for me, I realise that going offshore is a new and somewhat daunting undertaking for many kayak fishers. I shall try to provide some help for those anglers by providing a reasonably detailed overview of suitable equipment, blue water fish-hunting strategies and personal safety.
Two important considerations when choosing the right kayak for this role include safety and fitness for purpose.
Going out wide increases the risk of getting caught out by unforeseen weather events, such as sudden squalls, which are often accompanied by dangerous winds and big waves. You need a kayak that not only handles such adverse conditions, but also has an efficient hull shape and gets you home safely.
During such extended trips you will make thousands of energy sapping paddle strokes, so a light, well-designed paddle is important. These paddles are not cheap, but are worth every cent for the energy they save you.
Rudder-driven and the recently introduced pedal-driven kayaks can all lessen the strain on the body of a typical 30km round trip, as can a sail.
A fish-finder and chart-plotter combo is a great help. It will allow you to locate baitfish balls and mark fish-holding areas, show your position on the chart, and indicate depth, water temperature, trolling speed, distance travelled and current direction. Choose a battery that will last for the whole trip.
Fish storage: Fish go off quickly in hot summer temperatures. Use an insulated container that will hold ice for at least six hours and is big enough to hold the expected catch.
Accessories: A knife, split-ring pliers and a short gaff are three essential tools. Lip-grippers are useful for releasing unwanted fish.
Rods and reels: As tuna are my main blue-water target fish, I prefer 1.8m-plus rods in the 6–10kg range to get a better lure spread and minimise tangles. A soft rod tip cushions sudden bursts and helps keep the small trebles connected. I now use only overhead reels with a line capacity of at least 200m of 15kg braid, top-shotted with 50m of 15kg mono. Your normal overhead reel will be just fine. There’s no need for huge drag settings when fishing for albacore or other tuna. They will never reef you, and dialling up the drag makes tearing the hooks out or tipping you out of the ‘yak more likely. Better to back off and let them drag you for a while.
For a couple of years I used braid, but when trolling with two rods, I frequently tangled both lines so badly that the knife was often the quickest option to rejoin the action. It was just so frustrating watching my mates haul in fish while I frantically tried to tease apart a well-knitted birdnest. I am still using braid, but only as backing for the mono top-shot, resulting in largely tangle-free fishing.
Lures: Over the years we have had success trolling soft-baits, tuna feathers, squid skirts, silicon squid, metal jigs, saltwater flies and bibbed Rapala-type lures. Feeding tuna will take all of them, but – and this is particularly so with skippies – at kayak speed they take bibbed lures more consistently than the others. Bibbed lures come in a wide range of sizes, and have bibs that vary from large for deep divers to small for shallow trolling.
I prefer lures between 95–125mm long, with the longer ones sporting a diver bib. My favourite colour combos are green-gold and blue-silver. After trying in-line single hooks, I have gone back to trebles to increase my landing ratio. I run DIY flashers 1.2m above my lures to make my lures more visible. After noticing that these flashers also get hammered, a mate and I included a single hook and occasionally caught tuna on them rather than the bibbed lure. This sounded like a sexy idea, until a pack attack saw one fish hooked up on the flasher and another on the lure and, in their frantic struggle to get off, they tore the whole rig apart!
General safety/comfort: Apart from a seaworthy kayak, I always take: a lifejacket with a crotch strap; VHF radio; EPIRB; polarised sun specs; wide-brimmed cap; high UV-rated suncream; and lip balm. For offshore trips it is a good idea to wear a tether that clips onto the kayak and prevents it from blowing away in the event of a capsize. To keep my ‘Armstrong Two-Stroke Motor’ ticking over, I take plenty of water and energy-dense food.
Weather check: It goes without saying that before I contemplate any trip out wide, I do a thorough weather check. I consult the Swell Map, Met Office Marine Forecast, Buoy Weather and my local New Plymouth Harbour real-time sea condition information. However, my final decision still depends on what I see with my own eyes when I look out to sea. Better to call a trip off than disregard one’s own gut feelings.
Trip planning: I usually go out with two mates, partly for safety, but also for the simple fact that six eyes see more than two. We generally leave at daybreak, using sails to catch the usual light offshore breeze. Right from the start, we take note where the terns are heading; if they are all flying in one direction, this indicates they have found a distant work-up. Once we have logged our trip report with the coastguard, we follow the birds, but only put the lures in when we have cleared the close-in kahawai schools.
We troll with two rods; to minimise tangles, a diving lure is run close behind with a shallower runner further back. This setup allows for tight turns when among the work-ups.
I like to have the rods angled out from the front of the footwell, enabling me to visually check the throbbing rod tips, which indicate my lures are working and allow me to see any hits that do not connect.
Throughout the trip we constantly watch the fish-finder for sudden water temperature breaks and depth. Temperature breaks are often associated with current lines, which are worth investigating as they often hold baitfish, kingies and tuna. However, most of our attention is focused on bird activity.
Tuna birds: Not all sea birds are associated with tuna; gannets, terns, shearwaters and various diving petrels provide possible indicators. These birds eat the same baitfish as tuna, so are constantly on the lookout for tuna pushing baitfish to the surface. Birds sitting in rafts can be just resting or waiting for the fish to bust up another bait ball. Circling gannets are a good sign, as this indicates they have seen something of interest. The first dive confirms fish action. Birds apparently flying a search pattern are worth watching, though, just in case. Terns, even only one bird dipping down frequently, point to some action worth investigating.
Dolphins: Whenever dolphins join a work-up there is always a commotion. Sometime the tuna stick around, but at other times the dolphins take over and the tuna depart. I am still undecided if dolphins are a help or a hindrance. I can recall one bust-up where the baitfish where so terrified that they sought shelter beneath the kayaks, with the dolphins flashing in so close I could feel them bumping against the kayak’s hull.
Water temperature/colour: It is said that the ideal water temperature for albacore tuna is 18.5 degrees. However, this species is tolerant of a wide range of temperatures, as demonstrated on its annual migration to as far south as South Westland. Albacore range throughout the tropical seas, so must also be quite comfortable in water well above 20 degrees. Here, in Taranaki, we have caught them in water as cold as 16.5 degrees. Albacore are pelagic wanderers and more likely to be found in blue oceanic water, but we have also caught them in green inshore water. All this boils down to the fact that this species is quite adaptable to a variety of sea conditions in their hunt for prey. Luckily this also increases your chances of finding them out there.
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